constitutes our world
It is well accepted that language constitutes our world. And if it is our world that has been so appallingly and inexcusably shaken up by the onslaught of the dreaded SARS-CoV-2 – Covid 19 virus, so has been our language. English, the principal language of the world today has come to bear the imprint of the pandemic, as well as of the infodemic arising from its incessant coverage on multiple fora and media. The English vocabulary of these bizarre times has come to include several medical terms, new coinages, acronyms, phrases, collocations and abbreviations. Novel nuances have come to be attached to old words. These describe our present predicament, our alienation, our fears, grief and uncertainty. And lots more.
Language also assumes importance as effective communication is the sine qua non for the success of preventive measures against the dreadful disease. Uses of inflammatory language and war analogies to motivate action are marked during this pandemic. It is proclaimed that we are facing ‘an invisible, elusive enemy’. But this has its limitations. On the one hand this is leading to fatalistic responses bordering on paranoia and on the other, the defiant labeling of the ‘viral apocalypse’ by some as no more than a ‘small time flu’ is resulting in people letting down their much needed guard. At both extremes, the fight against the deadly virus gets diluted.
It is noteworthy that English used to borrow words from other languages – the words epidemic, plague, and pestilence, for example are all French in origin. Today, however, English is the predominant language of the pandemic. Many consider this dominance troubling, and claim that over-reliance on English weakens public messaging. Be that as it may, a team of researchers at Michigan State University believes that historically, major events like natural disasters and wars have proven to have big impact on language. They expect the coronavirus pandemic will have an impact on language and the way we communicate. They claim that just as the Second World War was a big inflection point for language change partly because it brought people from so many different nations together, who ordinarily wouldn’t have had contact with one another. Now we are seeing the opposite – people being kept apart, who in normal times would have been together. This too shall similarly have ‘seismic effects’ on language use.
On related lines, a recent BBC article opines that at times of crisis in the past writers have coined words to describe our lives. It explores how words like ‘frustrating’, ‘spring-clean’ and ‘outsider’ came to be in an earlier era. Presently, the surreal realities of the internet age of ‘hyper’ and ‘virtual’ and ‘post’ that have been with us for some time now, have abruptly been jolted. We suddenly find ourselves, in a strange and unsettling world. This weird world will have its own lexicon. This is being witnessed now.
It is no surprise that quarantine has defeated lockdown and pandemic to be crowned ‘Word of the Year 2020’ after data showed it to be one of the most highly searched for on the Cambridge Dictionary. In a recent poll, the editors of the dictionary report that 33% of respondents say quaranteam – combining quarantine and team, meaning a group of people who go into quarantine together – should be added to the dictionary. Other suggestions include the portmanteau words quaranteen (a teenager affected by Covid-19 lockdowns), coronial (in times of corona) and lockstalgia (nostalgia for a time when the country was in lockdown or in a more extreme form of lockdown).
But the most comprehensive appraisal of the change in the English language has been undertaken by the eminent lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary. They too claim, ‘Great social change brings great linguistic change, and that has never been truer than in this current global crisis.’ The rapidity of the change is such that they have issued monthly rather than their usual quarterly updates to document the impact of the pandemic on the language, thereby capturing the dominant changes as the Covid 19 situation evolves. They have pointed out several such interesting trends in our language use by analyzing keywords used since the outbreak. So much so that some English words, such as immune, infection, symptom, vaccine, and virus, have come to form part of the basic vocabulary of many languages. Others like droplet, swab, and testing are also common.
In a series of studies, they observe that beginning January 2020, the words that have gained currency in these tense and trying times are mainly related to naming and describing the virus: coronavirus, SARS, virus, human-to-human, respiratory, flu-like. In February’20- Covid 19, quarantine, self-quarantine, pandemic, epicenter and self-isolate, amongst others become current. The controversial terms ‘Wuhan virus’ or the ‘Chinese virus’ have given way to more politically correct Covid 19/ COVID 19 (used for both the disease and the virus) avoiding problems with terms like Spanish flu and gay cancer (HIV/AIDS) that associate a disease to particular group of people.
By March’20, the keywords reflected the social impact of the virus, and issues surrounding the medical response: social distancing, self-isolation and self-quarantine, lockdown, non-essential (as in non-essential travel), WFH (work from home) and postpone were all especially frequent, as were PPE, frontline warriors and workers and ventilator. The data of the following months reveals the ebb and flow of the disease. Sport and support bubbles, keyworkers, and circuit-breaker became frequent.
In April, it is pointed out that there was a continued focus on the social and economic impacts of Covid-19, and words like lockdown, social or physical distancing, and –– furlough were often used. The need for online and remote communication gave rise to references to the video-chat application Zoom, including its use as a verb. Mask and covering were also keywords throughout. Telemedicine and tele-health along with tele-consultation also were often used.
In May, with the first signs of life opening up post-lockdown: reopen, phased (as in phased return to work, phased reopening), and easing (especially in easing of restrictions/measures, easing of the lockdown, de-confinement) were all keywords. When the fear of the virus abated and there was a return to face-to-face interaction: in-person increased in frequency, and was used as in-person worship and in-person graduation. The data of the following months reveals the ebb and flow of the disease. Sport and support bubbles, keyworkers, and circuit-breaker became common.
They observe that some words have been there in the past but now these have been invested with new meanings. Self-isolation (first recorded from 1834) and self-isolating (1841), are now used to describe a self-imposed isolation whereas earlier they have been applied to countries which chose to detach themselves from the rest of the world. Social distancing, first used in 1957, described an attitude of aloofness or deliberate attempt to distance oneself from others socially — and not keeping a physical distance between ourselves and others to avoid infection. And an elbow bump has been in its earliest manifestation (1981) a celebratory gesture rather than a means of avoiding hand-touching when greeting.
The pandemic has also led to several new terms that are blends of other words. Many of these are on the OED editors’ watch list e.g. words like maskne – an acne outbreak caused by facial coverings; Zoombombing – when strangers break into a video meeting; covidiot – someone who ignores public safety guidance; doomscrolling – when you skim worrying news on your smartphone; hamsterkauf – a German word meaning panic buying. Other neologisms like coronacoma, coronials, covidivorce, coronaspeak have also begun to be used. Coronial Moms blessed with coronial babies are expected to bear the burden of home, workplace and the children’s school with coronial fathers chipping in as well.
Addressing medical and other service personnel in frequent interface with people as covid warrior/hero and frontline worker/employee/staff has become universal. The names of the clinical tests like RT-PCR tests, CT scans and MRIs have become widely known though we are told that only severely infected need the latter ones. Other disease related words like cytokline storm or spike, (describing the overactive immune response that can lead to organ failure and death), community transmission or community spread dealing with the spread of a disease, and the likelihood that it will either subside, remain at a stable level within a population, or result in a pandemic are all related to R (also R number, reproduction number, and reproductive number). CFR, or case fatality rate, morbidity rate, and mortality rate, have also tragically entered our everyday vocabulary.
Checking disease propagation demands a combination of social distancing measures, instant historical contact tracing, and restricted access to areas by creating geo-fencing and micro containment zones along with physical testing and screening of both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. Platforms and applications to map the spread, contain and break it have led to the development of Aarogya Setu, CoWin in India and several others across the world.
Personal hygiene for the prevention of infection has given importance to disinfectants, face masks, face shields and hand sanitizers/ hand washing. Mask wearing has given rise to phrases such as mask up, anti-mask, anti-masker and mask-shaming. Also, words like remote, distant, online/offline, mute/unmute have proliferated. There is a spurt in online, digital and hybrid pedagogy. Then words like workcation – a holiday in which you also work, – and staycation – a holiday at home have also been formed.
Travel restrictions have highlighted the need for bio-bubbles and travel bubbles. And the breach of these has resulted in various crises, including for many in India, the postponement of the IPL matches. But the India-England series has been the first bio-secure Test series held in February and March this year. To leave our homes during lockdowns, quarantine or a curfew an e-pass – that authorizes a person’s movement is mandatory.
The pandemic requires effectual medicines. With specific ones yet to arrive, old drugs like chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine and dexamethasone and processes such as plasma therapy and CPAP, continuous positive airway pressure, and medical equipment like ventilators are in great demand. Then we have fearsome mutants that have come with the emergent strains of the virus. Now the virus is air-borne and the disease is now less surface driven and more through the aerosol route.
These days in India, the second wave has resulted in the need for proning (lying on the stomach to increase oxidation), oxygen concentrators and cryogenic tankers; and drugs like remdesivir, tocilizumab, ivermectin, etc., have become painfully familiar and scarce. Unfortunately, the superspreader religious, political and social events have multiplied and we see their ominous effects countrywide. It is devastatingly clear that we have failed to “detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize…” people. The need for community and military led field hospitals has arisen. The medical term Triage – a process of assessing and assigning treatment to the patients depending on the likelihood of their survival in view of severe shortage of hospital beds and medical supplies has taken on alarming implications. Black-marketing and hoarding of essential supplies, fleecing practices that seem so dated have returned, raising agonising questions about our moral fibre and social commitment.
As we desperately try to flatten the curve and achieve herd immunity by adapting to the SMS of ‘sanitizing, masking and social distancing’, we find our world has turned upside down. This is captured in the ubiquitous oxymoron social distancing that has become the new normal, another oxymoron in this new creepy world. We have been urged to remain physically separate and not socially separate in these distressing times. The vaccines that have arrived promise help in the development of antibodies that can target the viral spike protein. Though jabs and shots have begun, covid appropriate behaviour is here to stay. The governments have announced stimulus packages to mitigate the hardships faced by individuals and companies. But the endgame seems quite some time away.
Of course, language of old does not just wither away. Our most solemn thoughts remain ensconced in the immortal words of great poets. Keats in 1819 wrote the following lines, and their import is brutally true 200 years later. Like the speaker in the poem, we too are facing exhaustion, sickness, and anxiety that come with being part of the human world. Here people sit and listen to each other groan in excruciating pain, where disease relentlessly strikes the old, and where youth fades and dies. And, where even just to think is to feel intense suffering, heavy sadness, and hopeless pain. Witnessing the horrifying pictures of the floating dead bodies in the sacred river Ganga, one can only lament…
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs…
Red Lab sincerely thanks its Advisor, Avanindra (Abu) Chopra, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of English at DAV College, Chandigarh for this insightful piece.